The Louisiana Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would allow people on parole and probation for felonies to vote after a five-year waiting period.
The measure’s passage is a significant victory for voting rights advocates. Louisiana currently does not allow people serving probation or parole for felony sentences to vote at all. In 2016, The Sentencing Project found that over 69,000 people in Louisiana were disenfranchised while serving on probation or parole, amounting to about 64 percent of those disenfranchised in the state because of a felony conviction. Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said in an email that 2,205 have been under community supervision for five or more years.
The bill will now go back to the Louisiana House of Representatives to be reconciled with an amendment stipulating that people convicted of certain election crimes be excluded from the measure. The House has already approved the bill.
In Wednesday remarks on the Senate floor, state Sen. Dan Claitor (R) explained why he was supporting the bill, noting that lawmakers should be encouraging as many people as possible to get involved in the political process. If signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the bill would take effect March 1, 2019. The governor’s office did not return a request for comment on his position on the bill.
“So much of the criminal justice system exists to deprive us of our humanity – this bill restores a little of that humanity. This moment is decades in the making, but it has been well worth the fight,” said Checo Yancy, an organizer with Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), which lobbied hard for the bill. “Ultimately this is about our voice, our citizenship, and what that means to ourselves and our families.”
Yancy is currently barred from voting in the state because he is serving probation as part of a sentence for kidnapping and cocaine possession that was commuted.
Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national advocacy organization that supported the bill, said VOTE’s success in lobbying showed the power of having impacted people advocate for a law that would change their lives. “At a time when there is momentum and interest in favor of criminal justice reform, VOTE’s success shows that this work can and should be done under the leadership of directly-impacted people,” she said.
The Louisiana Senate’s move comes amid a broader push in several other states to challenge felon disenfranchisement laws, which critics say are racially discriminatory and an ugly remnant of the Civil War era when some states wanted to keep African-Americans from the ballot box. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently announced he would restore voting rights for people on parole. In Florida, the state with the largest disenfranchised population, activists hope to pass a ballot measure in November that would automatically restore voting rights to people once they complete probation or parole.
UPDATE: May 21 ― The Louisiana House approved the measure on May 17, sending the bill to the governor’s desk for his signature.
This story also has been updated to include comments from Pastorick.